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Turkey 101 : College Gives Immigrants Lesson in Traditional American Holiday

November 25, 1987|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

Long Beach City College officials decided that their Thanksgiving dinner would work better this year if they left out the cranberry sauce.

"They didn't know what to do with it," Jim Martois, director of refugee programs at the college, said of the guests at past holiday dinners at the school. "A lot of them spread it on their rolls. They couldn't stand the taste of it."

So there were no berries on the menu Tuesday at the Thanksgiving bash the college throws each year for new immigrants to the area. And none of the 130 revelers noticed.

"I liked everything," said Nan So, 57, speaking through an interpreter as he scraped the food off his paper plate in the college gymnasium.

Like most of the others seated along five long tables, So, a native of Cambodia, had arrived in the United States within the past year. "The turkey tastes like grilled chicken," he noted with relief.

Long Beach City College decided six years ago that Thanksgiving dinner was a good way to Americanize the recent immigrants who are beginning a three-year "refugee program" in English at the campus.

The job is a little tougher than usual this year, Martois said, because the recent arrivals--most of them Cambodian peasants--are often illiterate even in their own language.

"They really don't understand much," he said. "Thanksgiving isn't part of their culture."

The college conducts Thanksgiving preparedness classes during the week preceding the holiday. During the feast itself, Cambodian-speaking staffers are on hand to guide the newcomers in what to eat and how to eat it.

The refugees were mostly silent as they entered a gymnasium fitted with the folding tables, each containing 30 sets of plastic utensils. At the end of each table was an 18-pound turkey guarded by a college administrator wearing a chef's hat. And on a table nearby were the trimmings, including mashed potatoes with gravy, corn, rolls, pumpkin pie and apple juice.

Several of the refugees winced noticeably upon taking their first bites of mashed potatoes. Many ate with their hands, gobbling down the pumpkin pie before the turkey. One man refused to eat any of his corn, claiming it would give him a stomach ache.

But the diners seemed to have learned the good manners of guests, asserting that absolutely everything about the meal suited them just fine. That made at least one staffer suspicious. "They do this out of politeness," said Carl Wells, the college's coordinator of employment services.

As for further revising the Thanksgiving menu to conform to the refugees' tastes, according to Martois, it isn't going to happen. "They don't like mashed potatoes, but we give it to them anyway," he said. "You need a staple."

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